Over 300,000 families could miss out on free food scheme due to problems with digital switch over

As the cost of living crisis deepens, more than 300,000* families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are set to miss out on a free food scheme they are eligible for as a digital switch over has gone badly wrong.

Fresh analysis from Sustain shows that 338,656 families who are pregnant/have small children and eligible for Healthy Start vouchers for fruit, veg and milk have not claimed the digital cards, which they will need when the paper vouchers stop on 31 March. The last date to apply for the digital card so as not to miss out on any payments is Thursday 10 March. 

But the Healthy Start Facebook page has been flooded with complaints: the online application form is rejecting eligible families, cards are difficult to activate, the helpline isn’t working and can cost up to 55p.

The Sustain analysis also shows that more than £63.5 million in vouchers went unclaimed last year because of low awareness of the scheme* – and now some public health teams, aware of the scheme’s problems, have stopped promoting it to families for fear they will be put off by all the difficulties with digitisation.

A large coalition of charities, led by Sustain and The Food Foundation, and including Royal College of Midwives, Royal Society of Public Health and Rural Action Derbyshire (as lead partner for Feeding Derbyshire) is sending a letter to Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid today (10 March) asking him to extend the paper vouchers while the digital scheme is fixed.

Sustain campaigner Sofia Parente said: “Every year millions of pounds of Healthy Start vouchers go unclaimed and families miss out on free fruit, vegetables and milk. We welcomed the digitisation of the service as it was supposed to make it easier to apply and use, as well as reduce stigma. But the opposite has happened. Eligible families are being rejected, cards are failing at tills and calls to the helpline go unanswered. The Government needs to extend the paper vouchers until the digital scheme is working, otherwise families exposed to increasing food prices will miss out”

Zoe McIntyre, Children’s Right2Food, The Food Foundation said:  “There is no doubt that digitisation of Healthy Start can bring many benefits, but it must be done well, and with a clear understanding of the circumstances of those it is targeting. So many organisations, retailers, and individuals – including Marcus Rashford – have made huge efforts to tackle the issue of low uptake of this Government scheme to make sure low-income young families struggling to afford a healthy diet can get the support they need. So it’s really heart-breaking to hear how many families have been hindered by the digital switchover, rather than helped by it. At this challenging time of rising food prices, rising cost of living, Government really needs to remedy these issues immediately.”

The analysis also shows that the average take up of the voucher scheme in England in 2021 was 54%.

View letter to Secretary of State